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Advice to a young writer from Louisa May Alcott

January 20, 2020

Quoted from Life, Letters, and Journals, ed. Ednah D. Cheney, p.399-400

To Mr J. P. True

Dear Sir,

I never copy or “polish,” so I have no old manuscripts to send you; and if I had it would be of little use, for one person’s method is no rule for another. Each must work in his own way; and the only drill needed is to keep writing and profit by criticism. Mind grammar, spelling, and punctuation, use short words, and express as briefly as you can your meaning. Young people use too many adjectives and try to “write fine.” The strongest, simplest words are best, and no foreign ones if it can be helped.

Write, and print if you can; if not, still write, and improve as you go on. Read the best books, and they will improve your style. See and hear good speakers and wise people, and learn of them. Work for twenty years, and then you may some day find that you have a style and place of your own, and can command good pay for the same things no one would take when you were unknown.

. . . I have so many letters like you own that I can say no more, and give you for a motto Michael Angelos’s wise words :Genius is infinite patience.

Your Friend, L. M. Alcott

[Quoted from the book “Louisa May Alcott: Life, Letters, and Journals” pubished shortly after her death provides much insight into the life of a woman writer in the 1800s, now much in view in the current film version of “Little Women.”]

“It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”–Alexander Hamilton

January 14, 2020

Alexander Hamilton was one of many astute statemen who came to be known as the “Founding Fathers” who created the Constitution and the “American way of life” that we have become accustomed to under its direction. He was recognized as such long before the current hit musical bearing his name became the cultural phenomenon of the current decade.

His words and ideas warrant your attention—it will be a study—so when we share a few here, bear in mind that he has a much greater legacy to be reckoned with. Many of them have great resonance in critique of the current political situation that is threatening to destroy our government.

“. . . . though obstacles and delays frequently stand in the way of adoption of good measures, yet when once adopted they are likely to be stable and permanent. It will be far more difficult to undo than to do.”

Think about those last words again, in terms of what has been done—in the matter of allowing the electoral college to elect a patently unfit man to the high office of the presidency. The current impeachment and impending trial, is a direct result of an outdated “once adopted they are likely to be stable and permanent” electoral college majority that overwhelmed the choice of a clear majority of American voters in 2016.

Undoing that result has been, and will continue to be, far more difficult that the MAGA crowd’s attaining it. Are you up for the task?

A writer from his earliest days

January 10, 2020

Our childhood interests, if they are strong enough, shape our lives. Speaking for myself, my first “book” (stapled sheets of typing paper with a short—very short, since I had just learned to write) was “published” (i.e. handed to my parents, my very first readers, who thoughtfully saved it so that here ir is 63 or so years later) along about 1958. Did this mean I was an author? Hardly, but it did indicate that I had some self-image as one at the tender age of eight or so.

A few years later, I had handwritten, 30 pages or so, a draft of a novel about Vikings, that (thankfully) disappeared about 1961, when I would have been ten. In college, I photocopied handwritten single-sheets of an underground newspaper, which I posted on bulletin boards around the campus, quickly destroyed (again, thankfully). Did that make me a publisher? Later on in college, I had a handwritten draft of a history of political history, 60 or so pages, also thankfully disappeared. Did that make me a historian?

And then, thirty-odd years later, I started my Tom Crean trilogy, then published it under the imprint of Terra Nova Press. Now I was an author, a historian, and a publisher. All these things were hinted at in my scribblings from my very earliest years.

They were never thought of as a career track. I ended up in construction, built things, and eventually ended up in designing structures. My design business that actually pays the bills (writing does not) was the result of a planned career track.

But it is the writing and publishing part that fulfills me most, and that part was pretty clear to me, apparently, as soon as I could write.

Theodore Roosevelt: On the Presidency

January 8, 2020

Theodore Roosevelt, Republican President from 1901 to 1909, had an insider’s view of the Oval Office. He did not view it as a private sanctuary from which to issue edicts and appoint unqualified people to positions of power and influence, solely because they might enhance his own self-image of power and wealth.

Among Roosevelt’s many thoughtful insights:

“The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole.

“Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile.

“To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.”

–Theodore Roosevelt, Kansas City Star (7 May 1918)–

Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale (Branagh Theatre Live): Bigger than Life

December 29, 2019

The filming of a great play performed onstage in front of a live audience can bring a whole new appreciation for the work—the spoken words, the actors’ finesse, the director’s control, the nuances of lighting and set design. Seen from the seats, all these blend into a single production. The details enhance the whole, but themselves remain largely unnoticed until brought to the big screen.

This is certainly the case with Branagh Theater Live’s current release of Shakespeare’s venerable Winter’s Tale. Watching Kenneth Branagh’s Leontes melt down in a torrent of jealous, murderous rage, his face filling the screen, his tears visible and real, brings that torment into a real-life perspective. His unjustly accused queen Hermione (Miranda Raison), bravely defending her honor in a court ready to convict her of adultery, calls to mind the harrowing last words of Anne Boleyn to Henry VIII the eve of her execution. The tender moments between those whose love defies the law and faces the ultimate threat, the alternating stabs of love and loss and redemption, all loom so much greater.

These tragedies sweep the stage raw in the first half, opening the way to a lighter second half, a where the two kings’ estranged children catch a glimpse of freedom and joy such as can only be felt by those not burdened by the weight of monarchy. There are dances and songs and witty indulgences of comic relief, enough at first to make it seem as though these two halves were inexpertly thrust together by a playwright not in full control. But, ah, this is the Bard, after all. There is a point to this. The joy and freedom cannot last. Pride and jealousy rear their ugly heads again; the threat of death looms near, the weight of tragedy darkens the stage.

But ah, this is Shakespeare, after all. By some all but mystical power the dead return to life, the kings and their children all rejoice in their reconciliation. What might seem mere plot devices in a play have become, through the magic of the motion picture, real and poignant elements of humanity, not so different from those affecting all of us in our ordinary lives.

Given the high production values, it’s no surprise that the acting is superb. I can’t name them all here, but everyone deserves special notice, with every role given its due respect. The late-Victorian costumes and splendidly conceived sets bring the era close enough to our own to feel personal. Cinema camera work allows us to take deeper note of the finer aspects of lighting; faces shimmer in multi-hued glows that would easily be missed from the orchestra.

There are many ways to take your Shakespeare. A motion picture like this, shot during a single performance, and brought to a big screen near you is one of the best.

Playing Jan. 5 and Jan. 8, 2019 @ Lark Theater, Larkspur CA. Check online for a theater near you.

Yeats on the pleasures of reading

February 12, 2019

. . .

My fiftieth year had come and gone,
I sat, a solitary man,
in a crowded coffee shop,
an open book and empty cup
on the marble table-top.

When on the shop and street I gazed
my body of a sudden blazed;
and twenty minutes more or less
it seemed, so great my happiness,
that I was blessed and could bless.
. . . .

Need we say more?

(excerpted from “Vacillation.” Yeats actually sat in London shop.)

Not the physical heart, the other one

February 7, 2019

I ran into an old friend today. Hadn’t seen Tommy in a long time, evidently, as he related to me his open-heart surgery from August of last year.

How his doctors belatedly discovered that his shortness-of-breath was not asthma as they had long been telling him, but was instead the result of blockage in his heart veins to the extent of 95%, that he was (when they found this out) a “dead man walking.” How they sliced up his chest and spread it, took the heart right out on top, scavenged some veins from his leg and applied them to the heart, put it back in and stitched him right up.

How they wanted him walking in 16 hours, but he was up in 8. How they wanted him to use a walker, but he said “I’ve been walking my whole life” and set off down the hospital hall. How they wanted to keep him a week, but he was home in 3 days. Had to take care of his wife, you see.

Tom has this idea that it is love that keeps us alive, even when we are not. That the love that is in us lives eternally, whether we believe it or not. That our bodies are here for a short time only, so in terms of our lives it matters little whether we have one or not, it will be gone soon enough no matter what. Love is the thing.

Me, I’m more of a pragmatist. I’m pretty sure I’ll wake up tomorrow, so my job today is to be sure I wake up in a good place. And eventually that will be out of my hands anyway, whether or not I wake up, or where. No eternity for me.

But, nonetheless, maybe Tom and I think more-or-less the same. Whatever, right?

Before we parted, he kissed me on the cheek. Scratchy old gray beard. No other guy gets to do this, but Tom—well, he’s all right. Alive, too, after being so close to not-alive.

Makes you wonder, how many of us are that close to not-alive, and don’t even know it. Not the body, but the heart. Not the physical heart, the other one.